Pickles and tomatoes
It’s been an emotional summer.
Remorse, worry and a bit of guilt.
First, I was remorseful and guilty about pickles. Then, I began to worry about tomatoes. Let me start at the beginning.
I was reading a novel set in the early 1900s and came across a passage about a doctor having a breakfast of cold ham and pickles.
Pickles! I thought. When I was a restaurant critic, I read lots of books about food in history. Pickles had a starring role. Cleopatra ate them for beauty and spirituality. Julius Caesar ate them for health. Napoleon hauled them along to feed his armies on campaign. Aristotle wrote about them, so did authors of the Bible. Sailors ate them to prevent scurvy. Elegant menus of the 1800s often listed “assorted pickles.” Shame on me for taking pickles for granted.
I vowed to take up pickling. First, I would have to overcome two fears bred into me from the 1950s.
1. The dreaded pressure cooker (“They’ll explode and kill you.”) and
2. The skulking danger of food poisoning from anything left unrefrigerated for 15 minutes.
I jumped into my new hobby by ordering a small library about pickling. “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz seemed to be the primary authority. The author is so keen on the subject, he writes about his “love affair with sauerkraut.” He writes with emotion about fermenting everything: yoghurt, bread, cheese, fruits, vegetables, beer, wine, grain, beans, fish, eggs and much more. Bacteria is our friend, he declares, not our enemy. “When it’s late at night and quiet in the house,” he wrote, “I can hear my ferments gurgling contentedly.” It’s a joyful sound to him; “it means my microbes are happy.”
Sadly, this fascinating book was too much for me. It was like taking a graduate class in bacteria, enzymes and anaerobic metabolism.
I moved on to easier instructional books, “The Joy of Pickling” by Linda Ziedrich and “Pickled” by Kelly Carrolata. I learned the basics, that pickling means preserving food with salt or vinegar or both. I learned we have a national Pickle Day, that Hyderabad, India, is considered pickle heaven, and that some Chinese and Japanese travel with suitcases full of pickles. I read about pickle crocks and jars and seasonings. I learned that some people use pickle brine as a cosmetic and some as a hangover remedy.
The more I read, the more making my own pickles seemed too labor intensive. Lazy to the bone, I put away the instruction books and turned my attention to tomatoes. Even I can grow a few tomatoes. I planted a few of my favorite varieties — Best Boy, Beefsteak and Cherokee Purple — in large pots, wondering again if the Cherokee really did bring the seeds with them over the Trail of Tears. I set pots of grape and cherry tomatoes by the door so I can pop a tiny tomato into my mouth as I come and go.
I believe that everything goes better with books, so during a short rainy season, I read “Tomatoland” by Barry Estabrook. A blurb on the book’s cover says “It will change the way you think about America’s most popular vegetable,” and boy, is that right. Except that according to my research the tomato is the second most popular vegetable, behind lettuce. Furthermore, botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit, although in 1893 the Supreme Court ruled it was a vegetable for taxation purposes.
In “Tomatoland” I learned the history of the tomato. It traveled from its ancestral home in the deserts of Peru and Ecuador, to Spain, Italy, France, and eventually to California. This book, however, is a condemnation of the Florida tomato industry where the plant is grown in barren sandy soil and pumped full of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. They are picked hard and green, gassed with ethylene to a ruby red, then sold to us “as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor.”
Even if I could get past that unappetizing news, I couldn’t overlook the book’s report of the slavery of the Florida tomato workers. “Not virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slavery-like conditions,” according to the chief assistant United States attorney in Florida, “but real slavery.”
Until my own handful of tomatoes ripen, thank heavens for the local farmers’ markets. I’ve also renewed my vows with Vlasic pickles.